Is this the changing of the guard or world parity? Have the many surprising and even shocking group play results so far been unusual or does the quadrennial break give us upset amnesia? Or perhaps it’s the curse of the Nike Soccer “Write the Future” ads? The late Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who championed parity in the NFL, would smile…so would Lamar Hunt and I imagine Don Garber and Sepp Blatter are smiling, too.
Four of the seven top seeds have been “mortalized” in group play. Upsets are nearly becoming the rule rather than the exception. European giants Spain, Italy, Germany, England, and France have all conceded points to much lesser teams. African nations have failed to take advantage of their home continent advantage. While South America has been the strongest region (10-2-0 through 12 matches), even Brazil and Argentina have shown they may not be invincible to lesser opponents.
Perhaps in spite of itself, FIFA has seemingly achieved parity. The tournament surely isn’t over and it’s still likely that one of the heavyweights will be lifting the successor of the Jules Rimet Trophy on July 11th, but the minnows are growing up and the sharks seem to be losing some of their teeth. There may be many reasons for this:
- New FIFA regulations are more forgiving allowing players who played for one nation’s youth national team to change national teams at any age instead of by age 21. This change implemented last summer essentially allows a deeper pool of players for the lesser soccer nations. Today’s United States opponent Algeria took advantage of the change more than any other nation and totals 17 foreign (France) born players on its 23 man roster.
- Coaches have more access to videos and scouting networks allowing better and more detailed scouting and soccer education. Modern technology and increased networks provide more information for smaller soccer nations that tends to level the field between nations. Scouting teams in the opponents country can even be deemed hazardous duty.
- The cool and often rainy weather seen in group play can limit the advantages of more skilled players and add to the parity.
- The high altitude of games in Johannesburg and other elevated venues may have affected one team more than the other. France’s loss to Mexico, England’s draw with the US, New Zealand’s draw with Slovakia and Brazil’s struggle with the People’s Republic of Korea all occurred at high elevations. Six of the ten sites are at elevations of 3,900 feet or greater:
Stadium, City: Elevation
Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg: 5,751 feet; Free State Stadium, Mangaung/Bloemfontein: 4,593 feet; Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Tshwane/Pretoria: 3,983 feet; Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane: 4,298 feet; Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg: 4,921 feet; Soccer City, Johannesburg: 5,751 feet
- The neutral African site may serve as an equalizer as well. Teams from the host continent haven’t provided much in the way of competition, but the traditional western European powers, who had minimal travel and maximum fan support four years ago in Germany have neither in South Africa.
- More top professionals are crossing borders to ply their trade in top foreign leagues now than ever before. This provides better experience, quicker development and greater confidence for players from weaker soccer nations who migrate home every four years to exchange their club kits for their national colors. As an example, at the Premier League’s beginning in 1992-93, only eleven players named in the starting line-ups for the first round of matches were foreign. Just eight years later, 36% of Premier League players were foreign. By 2004-05 the figure had increased to 45%. Chelsea became the first Premier League side to field an entirely foreign starting line-up on On December 26, 1999 and on February 14, 2005 Arsenal famously became the first Premier League club to list a completely foreign 16-man roster for a game. This melting pot makes for greater assemblages of talent, but pushes out domestic players from what most consider the best league in the world.
- At its core, world soccer parity directly correlates with increased globalization – the spread of all facets of society across borders and oceans. Culture, business and sport now travel rapidly due to more efficient transportation and communication. Dissemination of sport knowledge and experience, just like the spread of international culture and business, is like water seeking its own level.
The seven top-seeded nations in 2010 have already drawn four times and suffered two losses, not counting Group A with the host South Africans. Whether you count South Africa, Mexico or France as the Group A top seed, you can add a draw and a loss (two if it’s France) to that total. With six more matches to play, top-seeded teams this year have already lost or drawn eight times.
In 1998, the top-seeded teams lost three and drew five times in the group stage with Spain, England and Brazil absorbing the defeats. In 2002, the top-seeded teams had an upset epidemic with four losses and six draws in the group stage including two draws by co-hosts Japan and South Korea
The 2006 World Cup’s group play went exceedingly – and boringly – to form with no upset victories and five draws by the top seeds.
* Through June 22, 2010
While 2010’s new found parity, where any country truly can defeat any other country on a given day, may not be popular in western Europe, it provides real hope to billions of fans who previously saw little. And I suspect 2010 is only the beginning. The trends described above are long term and in their infancy. By the time the World Cup returns to North American shores in 2022, this prediction really won’t be a dream…and the former Red, White & Blue long shots will be joined in the newly favored nations pond by many of their former fellow minnows.